Marcus Allen, wearing a sweat-soaked white tank top and a wry smile, flapped his tattooed arms like a bird as he looked out to the Penn State practice field.
He took a brief moment to himself.
“It’s starting to become a business,” Allen said of the sport he loves. “But I like to keep my childhood characteristics around...You have to keep it exciting. We came here to play football and have fun.”
That’s something Allen takes to heart.
Upon meeting Allen, it’s clear there are really two people in one body: the hard-hitting, no-BS safety, and the wild but reflective teammate and friend.
One doesn’t come without the other; it’s a package deal, and the 20-year-old junior enjoys that.
“I’m a funny guy on and off the field,” Allen said with a grin, “but when it’s time to work, I can switch it up.”
That’s how it always was and always will be.
His teammates see it every day.
Penn State cornerback Christian Campbell, in particular, has experienced his fair share of Allen. The safety’s roommate since freshman year, Campbell offered a brief assessment.
“He just doesn’t get tired,” Campbell said, still somewhat surprised. “I’ve gotten used to it though. ... I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
When asked about Allen’s personality, cornerback John Reid shook his head and laughed.
“Oh my gosh,” Reid said with emphasis. “He brings that swagger to the secondary. ... Marcus makes sure when he goes out there, that it’s going to be a fun day.”
It’s not fun for the people he’s hitting, though.
The 6-foot-2, 202-pounder is a bullet. Look up “Marcus Allen Penn State” on YouTube, and cringing is unavoidable. Allen, who made 22 tackles in Penn State’s 29-26 overtime win against Minnesota last week, the most in Penn State history in 11 years, has a penchant for popping ball carriers. It’s an aspect of his game he cherishes, and it’s something that can strike fear in an opponent.
“If they’re trying to lob it over the top,” Reid said, “that person has to really think about catching that ball.”
While he’s doing the hitting now, ironically, Allen’s football career started — and almost ended — with him getting his bell rung.
Allen was 5, playing flag football.
Yes, flag, not tackle football. In his first practice, Allen was running with the ball, and a player brought him to the ground.
“You’re not supposed to tackle in flag football,” Allen remembered thinking. “I landed on the ball, and the ball hit me in my stomach and it hurt. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not playing this.’ ”
And like that, he was done with football — temporarily.
In fifth grade, Allen started up with tackle football. After playing offensive and defensive line, which he didn’t really care for, he switched teams to the Maryland Razorbacks where he played running back and wide receiver.
“I just turned up from there,” he said with a grin.
When he reached his freshman year at Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr. High School in Upper Marlboro, Md., Allen wanted to stop playing rec football and focus on playing for the junior varsity team.
Marcus started at outside linebacker as a freshman, but his coach at the time had a conversation with him at the end of the season.
You come back that small, you won’t play outside linebacker for me, Allen’s JV coach said at the time.
Now, Marcus even admitted, he wasn’t very physically imposing. “In ninth grade, I was small as crap,” Marcus quipped. But his father, Shawn, heard the conversation between Marcus and the JV football coach and took that as motivation to put his son in the gym.
“I felt that if college football was a small possibility, it was important to look the part,” Shawn Allen said. “I knew he had heart as a football player. He was never afraid. But Marcus had a baby-face, and he was always a little smaller. So we wanted to change that.”
And so from that point forward, every day Marcus and his father went to the LA Fitness gym on Central Avenue in Prince George’s County.
It wasn’t easy for Marcus to commit to it. One day after school, he went to the basketball court to shoot around with his buddies.
His father drove up to the court, and yelled, “What are you doing!? I told you we were going to the gym!”
“He was screaming at me, embarrassed me in front of all of my friends,” Marcus recalled. “I started crying.”
But Shawn saw the big picture.
“At that point, I had a vision,” Marcus’ father said. “He didn’t share that vision, but I knew what it took to have that vision come to fruition.”
So, Marcus kept hitting the weights, and the work paid off.
A consistent routine, coupled with protein shakes and a massive growth spurt, caught the attention of Wise varsity football coach DaLawn Parrish.
Parrish approached Marcus about playing safety. He had never played in the secondary before.
“He brought me into his classroom and was like, ‘Let me see you backpedal,’ ” Marcus said. “I was just running backwards. I had no idea what to do.”
Parrish, a former defensive back at Wake Forest in his playing days, taught him the position. In his first year at safety, Marcus was second on the team in tackles, recorded a few interceptions, and received his first scholarship offer from the University of Pittsburgh.
Then Maryland offered him, and the list grew.
Allen ultimately chose the Nittany Lions — Shawn said former Penn State coach Bill O’Brien’s NFL background paired with the early opportunity to play was what sold them — but the Panthers intrigued him.
While he was raised in Maryland, Marcus had roots in Pittsburgh. His father grew up in Homewood, and Marcus spent summers visiting his grandparents.
His grandmother and grandfather were influential in Marcus’ life, which made this past year a difficult one to deal with. During winter workouts, Marcus’ grandmother passed away, and days before he returned to the Steel City to face the Panthers this season, his grandfather died, too.
Both were in their 90s.
“They were together all of their life,” Marcus said. “Once she passed, he was just tired, and he was never like that. He’s energetic, he’s been a working man all his life. But once his wife passed, it was almost like it was time.”
Marcus was thankful to have a support system at Penn State.
“That was a hard time,” Marcus noted, “but once I got back on the football field, my brothers had my back. Just getting back to regular Marcus, having fun with them.”
His father believed his family and teammates helped Marcus get through it all. Most important to Shawn, though, was Penn State head coach James Franklin.
“You hear this term they use, ‘Used car salesman.’ He’s anything but a used car salesman,” Shawn said of Franklin as his voice shivered with emotion. “He would text or call me to let me know how Marcus was doing. He was there to support him, and he was there to support us.”
What Marcus learned from his grandfather also got him by. The energy and strength, vitality and vigor guided him.
That, paired with Marcus’ spontaneous side, is what makes him such a lightning rod of attention.
In the locker room and around the Lasch Building, the safety will make up words. For example, “stoppoin” is “stop playin’ ” in a funny voice. And the words always catch on.
“I’m not gonna lie, I’m always playin’,” Marcus said. “I’m a character.”
On Twitter, too, he’s a social media starlet. Marcus has more than 22,000 followers, most of any player on the team.
His Twitter handle @Chico_Hendrix is as interesting as his posts.
Marcus made it that for a reason.
The “Chico” part was a nickname in high school, and the “Hendrix” half is more meaningful. Marcus’ second-favorite rapper behind only Young Thug is Future, who draws inspiration from legendary musician Jimi Hendrix.
“Before every song, Future says ‘Future Hendrix.’ He idolizes Jimi Hendrix, and I made that my Twitter name because he’s a different character,” Marcus said. “Jimi Hendrix had his own little swag to him. Everyone thought he was weird, but I also have my own little swag to me.”
That’s not something Marcus broadcasts on Twitter, but if someone asked, he’d tell them why.
He’s got nothing to hide. He’s vulnerable and reflective, impulsive and mischievous.
The highlight-reel safety has both a serious and a silly side; heart and swagger. And to him, the two mesh into one distinct personality.
“It’s a natural thing,” Marcus said. “You can never have too much energy.”
Penn State vs. Maryland Game Day Breakdown
Who: Penn State (3-2, 1-1) vs. Maryland (4-0, 1-0)
When: noon Saturday
Where: Beaver Stadium
Series: Penn State leads 36-2-1
Last meeting: Penn State 31, Maryland 30, last season
Keys to Win
For Penn State: Stop the run. Maryland gashed Purdue last week for 400 rushing yards, and is averaging 300 rushing yards per game behind freshman running back Lorenzo Harrison and sophomore Ty Johnson.
For Maryland: Stop Saquon Barkley. The Nittany Lions’ sophomore running back is a threat in one-on-one matchups on the ground and in even in the air as a receiver. The Terps will likely load the box with extra defenders to add pressure on Barkley and on quarterback Trace McSorley, who will have to look for perimeter options.
Nittany Lion to watch: Marcus Allen. The Maryland native had a career-best 22 tackles (almost a school record) last week against Minnesota, and was highly effective in limiting the Gophers when slotted into a hybrid safety/linebacker role to help an injury-riddled second tier. Allen knows many of the Terps from high school and can be expected to come out hard against his childhood city.
Terrapin to Watch: Will Likely. The receiver/kick returner is one of the most prolific athletes in the conference at either position, and is a threat to Penn State at both. Though he’s been kicked off to only twice, he has a 51-yard average and returned a kick against Purdue for 64 yards.